Whether driving alone into burning oil fields or trekking to remote uranium tailings sites, photographers Sebastião Salgado and Edward Burtynsky have built international careers from staking out positions on the front lines of industrial globalization. They have made a staggering documentary record of what the accelerating spiral from ore to finished goods to scrap is doing to populations and environments across the globe. Salgado, a former economist who fled political repression in his native Brazil in 1969, has focused on the toil and migrations that have driven and been driven by integrated global economies – and on places and populations that have stayed relatively untouched. Ontario-born Burtynsky has concentrated on the patterns and scars inflicted on landscapes and cities by industrial processes. Both work in thematic series that sprawl across continents, take years to complete and tour the globe in high-profile exhibitions, including Salgado’s Genesis (opening Saturday at the Royal Ontario Museum) and Burtynsky’s Oil (opening May 31 at Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of Nature).
During an exclusive encounter in Toronto, the two master photographers talked about the rigours of getting into places that most of us will never see, the effect of their New World backgrounds on their work and their passionate pursuit of the image that crystallizes a thematic concept.
Burtynsky:Sebastião has spent a lot of time looking at the human dimension. I’m once removed, I’m looking at the effect of humans on the landscape. Humans rarely end up being the primary subject in my photography. It’s more to do with how we as a species are imposing systems onto the landscape, as the human enterprise expands to seven billion. Our expansion has a direct effect on nature and the landscape, and on the wilderness. That’s always been the core of my thinking.
Salgado:When I first saw Ed’s pictures, I saw there’s a lot in common, though the concept is completely different. We were both born in huge countries with lots of space. It’s quite different from the position of the European photographer. I was born on a big farm in the interior of Brazil. It took us about 45 days on horseback to bring the cattle to the slaughterhouse, and about 25 days to travel back home. At that time, more than 92 per cent of Brazilians were living on farms, but today, 92 per cent live in towns. In these 55 years, we have had a huge change in the Brazilian model of life.
The series I did before were human, social projects. Workers was about the end of the first industrial revolution, with the arrival of intelligent machines and robots in assembly lines. With Lelia, my wife, we created a project to do a kind of archeology of the industrial era. In Genesis, I photographed other things, including animals and landscapes.
Burtynsky:A lot of the heavy lifting is deciding what your concept is, getting your ideas in order and going from a general idea to a specific image. For me, that’s always been kind of a mysterious process, partly intuitive, partly from what you see and experience. When you develop a concept that you want to follow, you move away from the randomness of taking photographs to the idea of making photographs. It’s very personal – the subject, the colour, the ideas, how you’re organizing the frame, what you’re choosing to speak about. The question is always: How do I intersect with something in my time, that has a universality to it, that goes beyond my internalized ideas and can speak into a greater forum?
Sebastião saw the end of the industrial revolution and the beginning of the information age, and wanted to make a tribute to the worker who brought humanity to that moment. In the early eighties, I got the idea of looking at mining, and went to areas where mining was happening, and started a process of discovery with my camera. I would try a bunch of things, look at what came out of it, refine it and keep going back till I felt I had saturated that idea.